This summer, a woman of Arab descent tried to enter a Paris swimming pool wearing a head-to-toe black swimsuit dubbed a “burqini” and was expelled. The episode rekindled the “veil controversy” of 2005, when the French Parliament, at President Jacques Chirac’s urging, unanimously passed a law forbidding students to wear any “intrusive religious signs” in schools. The Jewish yarmulke and the Christian cross were tolerated, if kept small and discreet, but not the Islamic veil—which was the law’s real focus. The veil law, a not-so-subtle attempt to prevent the Islamization of France, implied that French society had become besieged by its 4 or 5 million Muslims, and observers might draw the same conclusion from the burqini incident.
But the reality is quite different. Few Muslim women in France wear the veil, just as it is rare in their countries of origin. Algeria, the main source of Arab immigration to France, has been under French influence since the mid-nineteenth century and is a relatively secular society. Islam is not the defining element in life for French Arabs. They see themselves first as Arabs (or Reubeu, in slang)—a cultural identity more than a religious one.
The veil law did say a lot about the French, however. Chirac began advocating it after a dozen young veiled girls, mostly of Kurdish origin, were pushed into public schools by their fathers in a well-orchestrated attempt by a tiny group of Muslim radicals to attract media attention. Chirac saw a perfect political opportunity to reaffirm the secular values of the French Republic and to win political support not just from his own party but also from the opposing ones—Socialists, Communists, and Conservatives alike. Their unanimity underscored France’s true common religion: laïcité. Laïcité—the word carries more ideological weight than does “secularism” in English—is a reminder of the French Republic’s historical origin as an explicit ideological counterweight to the Catholic Church. No significant French groups, not even Muslims, oppose this secular ideology; Muslim leaders protested the veil law only softly.
Considering the French Arab population’s size, the number of mosques is small. Muslims don’t have the financial resources to build them, and the French Arabs really aren’t all that interested. Arab constituents rarely urge mayors to build mosques; more often, they complain about run-down schools or police harassment. The existing mosques in Paris are usually empty, except on major holidays. Significantly, in Paris’s most ethnically diverse area, the Goutte d’Or, there are two mosques—one Arab, the other African. The two Muslim populations do not mix; culture trumps religion. In France, secularism is a greater threat to Islam than Islamization is to the Republic. About half of French Arab women marry non-Arab, non-Muslim men (this is an anecdotal observation, however, since French law forbids even private groups from collecting statistics based on ethnicity or religion).
But a few months ago, laïcité suddenly appeared to be under siege. In addition to the burqini-wearing swimmer, there appeared on Paris streets a few burqas—the Afghan dress that covers its wearer from head to toe, hiding the face behind a woven grid. Some Conservative and Socialist members of Parliament immediately asked for a new law to ban the burqa on French soil. In a solemn address to Parliament, President Nicolas Sarkozy declared the burqa an offense to women’s dignity, unacceptable in France. He then wisely held off on ordering a new law, awaiting a police inquiry into how widespread the burqa really was. The French police began counting, generally by observing women in city streets, and found a total of 80. The controversy died down soon afterward.
Looking beyond this latest incident, French sociologist Azouz Begag, who formerly served as Chirac’s minister for integration, sees a permanent—and largely unwarranted—fear of Islam among the French. Politicians find it too tempting to exploit this fear, he believes. From the 1980s to the early 2000s, France’s far-right leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was able to carry 20 percent of the vote in national elections by playing the anti-Muslim card. Le Pen has aged, but others, says Begag, are ready to pick up where he left off. Begag doesn’t deny that radical Islam is a serious threat. “Young Muslims who cannot find a decent school, a decent home, and a decent job are tempted by Islamic radicalism,” he says. And Paris’s police force, which works in close cooperation with New York’s, is on constant alert, dismantling radical cells and deporting fiery Middle Eastern imams. But these radicals have more connection to global terrorism than to French society.
Paris is not being Islamized, then—and neither is it being Arabized in any profound sense. As traditional French couples keep having children—making France an anomaly on the European continent, with more than two children per couple and rising—demography and mixed marriages are not playing in the Arabs’ favor. Immigration from Arab countries has come to a stop, now replaced by immigration from sub-Saharan Africa. Just as other immigrants have done, the Arabs brought new elements into the French cultural mix, influencing popular music, food, attitudes, and vocabulary. But the typical young French Arab returning to his ancestral land for a summer vacation is shocked to realize how French he has become. This self-discovery has been the theme of many movies directed by French Arabs, such as Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche’s Bled Number One.
For Arabs, immigration to France remains a one-way ticket, even when the trip demands three generations. A burqini hides a lot, but even it can’t hide this reality.